Archive for March, 2012

Margin Call **** (out of five)

Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker J.C. Chandor, Margin Call has taken quite a few months to reach Australian screens – which is a shame, as every increase in the stock market and every decrease in unemployment takes us one step further away from the impact of the recent recession, and thus, of the timeliness of movies such as this one, which examines the causes of The Crash through one, huge, fictional Wall Street financial services firm over one extremely intense twenty-four hour period.

There’s no doubt that this delay will lessen the interest factor of Australian audiences for Margin Call, which is a terrible pity, because it’s an excellent, enthralling and revealing thriller. Chandor’s script was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the recent Oscars, and his direction is every bit as slick, snappy, fluid and uncompromising as his words. It must have been that excellent screenplay that nabbed him his astonishing cast, because he certainly didn’t have a lot of money to pay them: the film cost only three and a half million dollars, though it has the feel of a much more expensive production – partially because of that cast, which includes (wait for it!) Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell and Demi Moore, for good measure! All are extremely good in their roles, taking the difficult language of modern finance and owning it completely.

There’s no doubt the film wouldn’t have happened without Zachary Quinto (Mr. Spock in the recently rebooted Star Trek series). Although there are nineteen credited producers or executive producers, Quinto really put the project together through his own production company. He also takes a role – essentially the lead, although it’s almost the definition of an ensemble picture – and is very good in it, keeping his own amongst his stellar cast mates. He’s obviously a very savvy player, and I’m positive we’ll see a lot more from him besides a bunch more Spocks.

The film really places the trigger event of the Global Financial Crisis at the hands of a single firm (think Lehmann Brothers while you’re watching), but it also recognizes the inevitability of the thing: one of the firms was going to baulk at some point, and one of them did, almost demanding (in the completely insane world of titanic wall street firms) the others to follow.

If you think you’ve “done” GFC movies – if you’ve watched Inside Job and Too Big to Fail – and are tempted to skip Margin Call, I urge you to reconsider. It’s a gripping, totally entertaining, classy movie, and well worth your time.

Headhunters *** (out of five)

Morten Tyldum’s adaptation of one of Norwegian literary superstar Jo Nesbø’s stand-alone thrillers (as opposed to his Harry Hole series) is a lot of fun, if you’re really willing to suspend your disbelief. The initial premise is bonkers enough: a successful headhunter (Aksel Hennie, very appealing) is so worried that being shorter than his statuesque wife (Synnøve Macody Lund, very beautiful) will cause her to leave him that he steals paintings from houses, sells them and buys her expensive stuff with the proceeds. And it all gets more ludicrous from there.

Fortunately, and greatly to its benefit, the film doesn’t take the material too seriously, and instead revels in a grim black humour. There are some excellent grotesque visual gags, and Hennie’s jovial portrayal keeps the whole thing light and joyful, even as the body count rises (and it rises pretty high). Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, as a slippery villain, is definitely in on the joke as well, playing his Clas Greve for every bit of posturing self-confidence and steely-eyed nefariousness as he can. He’s a dead ringer for American actor Aaron Eckhart, who would be very good in the role, and, odds-on, will be playing it in the extremely inevitable Hollywood remake.

God of Mirth

Posted: March 6, 2012 in movie reviews

Carnage *** (out of five)

There are two things to establish right out of the box about Carnage, Roman Polanski’s faithful adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s international smash-hit play God of Carnage. One is that, since the play takes place in a single apartment, in real time, with only four characters, and since this is a “faithful” adaptation, even the greatest director in the world (and there are certainly many who believe Polanski to be the greatest director in the world) would be hard pressed to make it a truly “cinematic” experience. In other words, yes, it’s “stagey”. The second is that there need be no “spoiler alert”, because the material itself is so slight that the story is the premise: two couples, meeting to discuss a violent incident between their children, end up getting more and more aggressive with each other. That’s it – in terms of story there’s nothing more to say.

The good news is that, within that slight frame, there are many, many funny lines – I laughed out loud a lot, and the audience around me also seemed to be having a good time. Polanski and his A-List cast were all on the same page – they knew that the material was hardly going to change people’s lives (or win them Oscars) so they all played it for laughs. In its way, it’s a latter-day Neil Simon comedy – build, build, joke. Build, build, joke. Repeat.

Those laughs don’t come immediately. The first half hour is a bit of a strained set-up, and teeters on just becoming tedious – and then the first real joke breaks the dramatic dyke, and we’re in for a fun ride from then on in. I don’t know whether this is a very bold writing choice, or whether the first third simply isn’t funny but was meant to be. Regardless, the whole film is only eighty minutes, so it’s pretty hard to get bored or annoyed with it – especially with such a cast.

Kate Winslet definitely comes off the best; her Nancy Cowan feels the most rounded of four essentially dreadful people, and is probably the “best” role in terms of the writing. Jodie Foster verges on overplaying it, but scrapes in below that line; her character is really annoying, which doesn’t help. Both are essentially well cast.

It is painful to say that the two brilliant actors John C. Reilly and Christophe Waltz – Oscar winners both – are unfortunately a little miscast. Reilly plays Michael, the role James Gandolfini played on Broadway; Michael purports to be relaxed and cool, but there is constant allusion to a serious heavy hot temper lurking beneath the surface, and Gandolfini possesses a terrifying hidden ferocity, whereas Reilly can’t really pretend to be anything other than a likable teddy bear – it’s hard to believe there is ferocity beneath his friendly surface.

Waltz has the better male role; his Alan really is a cool customer, and he’s got more funny lines. His accent is a great puzzle, however; I was happily sure that they’d simply made Alan some vague US-dwelling European, whereas my partner was sure that Waltz was doing an American accent; in the end credits, there is revealed “Dialect Coach to Christophe Waltz”. If he was attempting an American accent, he did not succeed, by any stretch of anyone’s imagination; if he was playing a “European”, it unfortunately dilutes the class warfare that is the script’s major tilting board.

I don’t know why Polanski (who shot the film in Paris) made this film in English, and set it in the United States, unless it was a requirement of his Producer; the play began in French, set in Paris, and I think the dialogue would have remained better placed there. Some of the translation – from a screenplay by Reza and Polanski, neither of whom can claim English as their first language – is clunky; references to Ivanhoe and Jane Fonda are just weird, as though there was meant to be a final script meeting that never happened and intended cuts or changes were never made. And Alan’s unending (and very annoying) habit of talking on his mobile phone in front of all the others – rather than simply stepping into the hallway or kitchen – may have worked on stage, where the parameters of the physical space lull us into accepting the living room as the entire apartment – but on film, where we have already been shown that the apartment has multiple spaces, it just feels either very false or makes Alan downright socially sociopathic, which he is not. It also gives the film a sense of already being dated – there’s a lot made of that mobile phone.

When we left the cinema, and were talking about the film, my partner, who doesn’t get to see many films with me as I’m often at media screenings on my own, remarked that she didn’t really feel like she’d “seen a movie”. Carnage is a little like that – more of a curiosity than a major experience – but it’s fun and funny, and sometimes that’s enough.

A Separation *****

An unbelievably taut thriller of the emotions, A Separation’s only misstep is its title (or at least the English translation). It simply doesn’t sell the film as well as I feel it could; the movie could easily be called Lies and Revenge or Savage Life or Vengeance. The astonishingly rich and sharp script follows its own beautiful path, resisting any sense of formula or predictability. It is a completely original film.

It starts simply, and powerfully: a couple sit before an authority figure of some variety (a judge?) seeking a divorce, and a custody decision. She wants to leave Iran, perhaps permanently; he does not. We immediately get a strong sense of the nature of arbitration in Iran that will feel like chaos to a Western audience, both sides essentially bickering in front of us (we hold the arbiter’s POV) with little regard to any sort of formality. There’s no order in this court.

From here the story spins off in what seem like many directions until the real plot emerges, and when it does, it is vast and complex; suffice to say, two couples come into a legal dispute, and we see that much huger issues than simple divorce are also dealt with, in Iran, in the same way – still people arguing over the top of each other in front of a single arbiter: no jury, no witness dock, no trial sketch artist. The arbiter must act as much as a detective as a judge, and the case he faces here is, while simple on the surface, hugely complicated in its emotional, moral and religious shades. It is the best “what would I do in this situation?” film I’ve seen in ages.

In fact, it’s simply the best film I’ve seen in ages. It deservedly just won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, as well as the top prize at last year’s Sydney Film Festival. It’s fast paced, exciting, thrilling, edgy, moving, engaging, and – in its portrait of a justice system almost radically alien to the one I live under – absolutely fascinating. I couldn’t recommend it more. A truly five star experience.